A PhD … with teenagers

This post is by Fran Hyde, who has always embraced the idea of lifelong learning. Acquiring several professional qualifications as well as an MA in Marketing alongside working full time, Fran also remained actively involved with the marketing teams in several not-for-profit organisations. Fran‘s decision to change careers and start a PhD ‘midlife’ was driven by her wish to study marketing practice in what she saw as ‘difficult’ contexts alongside the realisation that to secure a full time permanent position in HE she would need a PhD. Whilst all this may sound perfectly  logical  returning to study with two ‘nearly’ teenagers was challenging, as we shall hear … Fran wants to mention that she had a wonderful partner and co-parent who did a great deal to support her throughout my PhD, not least earning the wage which supported everyone for 4 years!

At many times during my PhD years (2013-2018) I wished for a ‘pause button’ which would freeze the lives of those around me. Mainly, I wanted to put on pause the lives of my sons who were aged 13 and 10 when I embarked on my PhD but had become teenagers before I submitted my thesis. Whilst others posted pictures of babies napping as they revised chapters, or shared stories of sleeplessness after a tough night with teething children, my experience of being a parent whilst undertaking a PhD was a little different. As I worked on my PhD, the boys sat entrance exams, moved to secondary schools, started writing essays, took GCSEs, began shaving and discovered partying (the latter with its own specific type of parental sleeplessness).

Fran and her ‘babies’ on graduation day 🙂

Early on in my PhD years, in response to a low point in PhD work, my youngest looked at me and said quite calmly “what did you expect Mum? It’s a PhD; it’s meant to be tough,” delivering this statement with a direct frankness that many supervisors might shy away from. He was right, I was finding it very tough, tougher than I had expected, but somehow realizing he recognized this helped.

Around this time on a Sunday I was driving my other son to referee a football match before I went on to work in the university library. During this journey we calculated that as a referee he would exceed my hourly rate for university teaching. It was a sobering conversation even when we both tried to lighten the mood by talking about zero hours contracts. I introduced him to the concept of ‘precarious work’. It was around this time that I decided to try to use my experiences as a basis for some ‘conversations’ to contrast with their very edited and presented digital worlds. My thinking was that perhaps, seeing the ‘mess’ involved in completing a PhD, as well as the difficulties involved in constructing a new career, the boys might gain some appreciation for how qualifications are gained. I was hoping to make something out of my ‘blood, sweat and tears’ which were defining this part of family life.

Through the teaching I was undertaking to fund my PhD, the boys saw what happened when a student submitted an exam script was illegible. They found out that no marks can be awarded for an answer which simply “didn’t answer the question”, as well as the perils of not submitting work on time online (a side to digital life they were less than pleased to hear about). I also showed my youngest how to reference his sources and we had the ‘Wikipedia chat’. Subsequently he was pleased when his history teacher noted his effort to reference some of the sources he had incorporated into a piece of homework. As efforts to restructure and improve PhD chapters at times literally spilled out over the all-important kitchen table, the boys saw that editing sometimes involved scissors and sellotape. At times both were amazed to see me handle over 3,000 words, and I think they were both slightly intimidated. I think they were also just a little excited, to think that they might be able to get so immersed in a subject one day.

Being a PhD student and a parent of teenagers has also given useful insight into the transition we often expect our undergraduate students to make over just one summer – useful when teaching. On his request, I took my eldest along with me one weekend to the very well stocked university library, watched as he was completely overwhelmed, and then observed as he resorted to the safety of his laptop and Google. He ignored what was literally right in front of his nose, although he assured me he did find the atmosphere helpful for working. On reflection, I realized that this was probably the same for many 17/18-year-olds who we might expect to let go of a course textbook and then move seamlessly from school into university and enter a new world of multiple sources as they start on our modules.

In my completion year, as pressure mounted from the numerous deadlines on outstanding thesis chapters, I decided that the only way to survive and quieten my inner parental guilt machine would be by identifying the ‘non-negotiable’ for each child. For my eldest, in the midst of his first big external exams (GCSEs), this seemed to be about being in the house, which was easily achieved as I was stuck in my study, but more importantly, having a fully stocked fridge. In the end we supported each other in that May and June achieving a certain degree of solidarity through the snack breaks which we took together. For my youngest son, what seemed vital was to lose his space-themed bedroom in which he had been sleeping since he was 2 and acquire the décor of a teenager. A painstaking transition which involved him choosing every last light bulb, but one during which the ensuing shopping trips became very therapeutic and a welcome distraction for me. So, whilst I may have attended every sports fixture and been at every pick up with a laptop or a book for 4 years of their lives, it helped to work out, in those last frantic months, what mattered to the boys, and we all came out the other side of my completion year intact.

Post PhD submission, in early 2018, my eldest and I were scouring university websites for different reasons. I was job-hunting as he was looking at courses and university open days. Just after my viva we had a ‘road trip’ which coincided with a time at which I would have been pleased to never have had to set foot on a university campus again. Seeing universities through his eyes turned out to be a very positive experience, and I challenge anyone not to become infected by the positivity of a group of 17-year-olds as they sit together and reflect on their first campus tour or taster lecture, and discuss their plans for what they want to study and where. Seeing Higher Education through their eyes, I was reminded what all the tough times had been about, and we are both about to embark on the next stage of our lives at universities.

Different ones of course.

Thanks Fran! What a lovely post to share as my teenager finishes his last year at high school (thank the Lord!). How about you? Have you a house full of teenagers in addition to a PhD? Love to know how you cope!

Related posts

A PhD plus… four kids?!

Single parenting through the PhD

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

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5 thoughts on “A PhD … with teenagers

  1. Bridgette says:

    Fran’s article resonated with me. My children were 11 and 13 when I began my Masters (later upgraded to a PhD). As a newly separated single parent, the scholarship and occasional contract work supported us financially. Taking on a PhD as a sole parent, it was really important to teach my teens some independent life-skills; how to commute to school, be organised, submit homework on time, prepare lunches, use a washing machine and, when there was a really pressing deadline, prepare dinner. The things that were really important for us as a family were connecting each night over home-cooked meals, making sure everyone was travelling OK, that we could all do what we really wanted to and having a bit of leisure time on weekends. There were some tough times, like last week, when I was under examination and my youngest was in hospital for appendicitis. Yet seeing me attempt and complete a PhD has given my teens an appreciation of study, writing and editing drafts, persistence, and the mind-expanding world of research.

    • Fran says:

      Bridgette, thank you for your response to my article and firstly I hope your youngest is well on the road to recovery.
      I wanted to write this piece because I did have many moments of guilt throughout undertaking my PhD .. in that I wasn’t doing anything properly- working, PhD or motherhood.. and I suspected that I might not be alone in feeling this! So yes I agree using this time as an opportunity for some independence building for teens is a real positive whilst, as you say, having the ‘non negotiable’ ring fenced some where some how..however that is achieved and wherever it can be fitted in! Good luck with all your endeavours!

  2. Raghda Zahran says:

    Thanks for sharing.. your journey is reassuring. Before embarking on Ph.D. in 2008 right after my masters, I had my two children. My colleagues, who once encouraged me to pursue my thesis in life, explicitly exclaimed how on earth I could do it and that I should completely forget about it!
    I started EdD in 2014 part-time and as you said I wish I could pause time to get enough sleep, read as much as I want to, and write with a clear mind besides getting the chance to handle my tweens questions. And now I wouldnt trade any of this for the best job. My tweens understanding of digital presence gave new nuances to how they experience learning. They haven’t been afraid to ‘theorize’ and ‘argue’ at a time I was just stepping into these terms.

    • Fran Hyde says:

      Thank you for the comment .. yes doing a PhD does seem to solicit welcome
      (helpful?) and unwelcome (really unhelpful?) advice doesn’t it! Good luck with all your future endeavours.

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